My childhood was marked by several nurturing constants: a loving home environment, a strong network of faith and friends, and yearly trips to Disney World. And while the former two are still very much a part of my life, the latter has, in the past decade been noticeably absent.
In a sense you can blame Disney itself for that – between the enticing pavilions of World Showcase in EPCOT and (back in the day) attractions such as If You Had Wings, I was exposed at an early age to a sense of wonder and multiculturalism that sticks with me even now. So once I “outgrew” a yearly trip to see the Mouse, I made it a point to visit these far-off locales glorified in the theme parks firsthand – even traveling to all but one of the nations represented around EPCOT’s World Showcase Lagoon (Morocco, how you elude me!).
Just recently, after nearly ten years of trotting the globe seeking the authentic experiences Disney strives to recreate, I returned. I was joined by my parents, sisters, brother-in-law and six nieces and nephews for a family reunion in the place that meant the most to me as a child. This allowed me to compare the progress the parks have made as well as reflect on the nostalgia sparked by one of those constants I mentioned earlier. So if you can remember when Tomorrowland’s colors were blue and white, riding the monorail was the coolest thing ever, and the Contemporary Resort actually was contemporary, read on for a travel snob’s take on what has changed in the past ten years.
The Magic Kingdom
Nothing is more vintage Disney than the Magic Kingdom. In fact, during my visit they celebrated their 45th anniversary. To me, the best thing about a return to Disney’s signature park was the number of things that stayed the same. Or at least close to being the same. Space Mountain, my favorite ride growing up, had only minor changes, and while racing through the dark I could still see those same meteors whizzing by that I did as a kid. Something about that made me feel good. Both they and I have been floating around for the past 37 years (my first trip was at 4) and it’s nice we can still cross paths.
I was glad to see that Pirates of the Caribbean had the same skeletons playing chess while waiting in line, and even the addition of elements from the more recent movies didn’t detract from the overall sense of nostalgia at seeing a colonial village being pillaged by singing criminals.
Another Adventureland classic, which was once completely ruined by a change in sponsor, was the Enchanted Tiki Room. My inner child was appeased to hear the familiar original soundtrack restored, and I found myself humming along despite not having heard it in more than just the last ten years.
Some additions that I liked: new dining venues such as Be Our Guest – A Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant with good food and great ambiance. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was cute, though basically a Snow-White version of Big Thunder Mountain (which sadly, was closed. I was hoping to take another run on the “wildest ride in the wilderness”). The Little Mermaid ride was well-done and in harmony with the singing-animatronics-depicting-movie-scenes that is Fantasyland’s bread and butter. And even the eternal Peter Pan ride, though exactly as it has always been since I was a child, had some changes to the wait line that made it even more interesting.
Best of all, for me at least, was shopping our way out of the park down Main St. USA at night. Say what you want about Disney, they know how to light a park.
I can still remember as a little boy jumping up and down on our bed in the Contemporary Resort and staring at an artist’s rendition of what EPCOT would look like (yes, I’m that old). While in those days my interest was strictly reserved for the rides of Future World, in later years my appreciation for the pavilions of World Showcase increased. Now, that’s where I preferred to spend the bulk of my time.
I totally understand that in this day and age, theme parks need to unveil newer, flashier rides and attractions to keep people coming. But I do feel a certain sense of loss that some of those stalwarts of my childhood have been converted to ‘thrill’-type rides at the expense of their predecessors. For instance, the Test Track attraction – which in my opinion is only interesting when you take a high-speed lap around the building at the end – has nowhere near the charm or appeal (unless you’re an 8 year-old boy) as the former World of Motion (complete with the caveman blowing on his foot). Ditto with Mission to Mars which – though admittedly much more interactive – doesn’t compare with the vision of the future presented in Horizons.
Perhaps the biggest change was the Journey Into Imagination ride. This was my EPCOT favorite growing up, and I was appalled when it was changed nearly twenty years ago into an antiseptic disappointment of a ride. To Disney’s credit, they have restored Figment, its resident mascot and stuffed animal marketing draw, as well as the catchy “One Little Spark” tune. But alas the whimsical world of the Dreamport has not returned, being replaced by an Imagination Institute that doesn’t nearly compare to the charm that mesmerized me as a kid and had me wishing a trip through my own imagination were possible. Now, at over forty years old, the attraction’s biggest draw for me are the restrooms strategically located around back, which I have cleverly dubbed: the Journey Into Urination.
The best addition to the EPCOT theme park? No, not the new Frozen ride – that is unless you’re a six year-old girl dressed as a princess. It’s the Soarin’ attraction, originally borrowed from Disney’s California Adventure, and recently converted from a flight simulation over California to a journey to points of interest around the world, complete with wind in your face and even a grassy smell when hovering above a herd of elephant in front of Mt. Kilamanjaro. I’m not going to lie. This ride really appealed to my inner travel snob – especially when there were many scenes that I recognized from my own travels.
Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom
These parks are still too new in my opinion to be ‘classic’, though I did appreciate that the Great Movie Ride was essentially the same and the Muppet 3D Movie was just as funny as I remembered it. At Hollywood Studios I really enjoyed the Toy Story Midway ride – a contest with the other person in your car through a virtual fairground midway which is good for some laughs and even bragging rights (just ask my wife). Excellent too was the updated Star Tours simulation incorporating elements from the new movie into what was back in the day my favorite attraction in the park.
In both Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, I was highly impressed with the nightly shows. At HS there was a fireworks-studded, flame shooting, laser-firing Star Wars medley that would impress fans and non-fans alike. And at Animal Kingdom, which is now open in the evening, they somehow create the illusion of the animals in the big tree moving around before a set of four shows projected onto the tree depicting various seasons. As someone who has seen a lot of cool things, I thought myself above sticking around to watch the shows. But I was definitely impressed. Well-played, Mouse. I give you credit for that.
As great a job as Disney does in recreating places both real and imagined, I find it impossible to shake the reality that I’m really still in Central Florida (the humidity doesn’t help either). With so many real places to see and experience it feels unproductive to dedicate the time and funds to re-live the things I’ve seen so many times before. But I have to say, the sense of nostalgia and charm were soothing, and if I didn’t get into the whole ‘Disneyverse’ like I used to I was still happy to be there, making new memories with my loved ones and in the case of my nieces and nephews, seeing the parks through their young eyes. So while I have no immediate plans to visit again anytime soon, I cannot feasibly say it’s off the table. Even to a self-admitted travel snob, it’s a small world after all…